To read Perloff and Vendler Spar at PSA Panel on Criticism, part one of Joyce’s OBSERVATIONS


A review by Joyce in Summer 2000 of Thomas O’Grady

More work by Joyce Wilson in Spring 2000


A review of Wit

Poetry Porch Feature

The State of American Poetry: Roundtable Discussion
penObservations: A Column by Joyce Wilson

Burt and Scharf Disagree on Reading Poetry: By Form or Formula?

PSA Series on Poetry & Criticism
Poetry Criticism: What Is It For?

***** On March 15, 2000, at the Cooper Union, New York City, the Poetry Society of America held a panel discussion titled “Poetry Criticism: What Is It For?” and invited two well-known critics, Helen Vendler and Marjorie Perloff and two of their students, Steven Burt and Michael Scharf, to speak on the subject of literary criticism. This column will focus on the commentary of Burt and Scharf. For a discussion of Perloff’s and Vendler’s position statements, see the previous issue of The Drunken Boat.

*****The full text of the discussion is available on-line at the PSA Web site, as are the papers given by the participants. There is also a link to a review in Jacket. For those who are interested in pursuing the differences between Perloff and Vendler, see the Wallace Stevens Journal at, which is calling for papers for its special issue on Stevens and Pound, deadline June 30, 2001.

*****It is tempting to pit Stephen Burt and Michael Scharf, the students of Vendler and Perloff respectively, in the opposing camps of the intellectual against the pragmatist, the ivory tower against the marketplace, the aesthete against the streetwise. Stephen Burt, a graduate student at Yale who has published criticism, long book reviews, and a book of poetry, suits the profile of the scholar with exotic tastes and a large vocabulary. Scharf, a doctoral candidate at CUNY, has been writing poetry reviews regularly for Publisher’s Weekly and a column for Poets and Writers Magazine. While critics of academia have repeatedly maintained that its interests are closed off from the rest of the world, critics of journalism have complained of its preferences for mundane truths that are too much a part of this world. Stephen Burt’s efforts are directed at defining formal criteria of intellectual poetry, while Michael Scharf directs his efforts toward finding the right audience for the right book. One cannot help but think that if the two worked together, a brave new society of poets might be born, in which the talented could make money doing what they liked.

*****In his opening statement, Stephen Burt begins by examining the new directions of contemporary poetry. With obvious affection for categories and lists, he defines the present state of poetry—beginning arbitrarily at 1980—as concerned with epistemology, or the nature of knowledge, and the philosophy of mind and language, rather than autobiography or biography, anthropology or mythology. While poets of the pre-World War II generation—Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath, for example—wrote confessional poetry, exploring and baring those previously undiscovered caverns of the self to reveal new truths about human nature, the poets writing today regard the self as a subject of uncertainty, whose concrete dimensions often slip away or transform as soon as they are put on paper. His phrase the "elliptical poet” describes a poet in whom, or in whose work, something has been left out, and the poetry is recognizable by the existence of the following: “ellipses; apparent semantic incoherence; uncertainty about who or what is speaking; very busy verbal surfaces; repetition, in preference to rhyme; invocations of Dickinson and Gertrude Stein and Wittgenstein.” He names the works of Jorie Graham and John Ashbery as prominent examples of this poetry which is about the workings of the mind rather than personal psychology. He also states that as we read this new poetry, we still try to imagine the presence, personality, etc., of the person who wrote it. He stresses that while the poetry that interests him is about the dissolving self, it also presents the reader with the challenge of reconstructing the self from the pieces. These pieces can be assembled through poetry of the body and bodily feeling, of grief and elegy, about friendship, or about ethics, responsibility, and solidarity. He implies that the reader who will strive to put the self back together, the self who wrote the poem and revealed its fragmented state, will be rewarded with a sense of wholeness amidst the pieces.
*****Burt believes that criticism begins with audience, which he puts in four categories of readers: experts (professors), beginners (students), other poets, the informed (those who know something about the book and/or author and want to know more). When he writes criticism, he has one or a combination of these groups in mind. He states that some poetry is more likely to be accompanied by criticism than others. The accessible poetry of Langston Hughes might not foster a demand in criticism the way difficult avant-garde poetry might. Hence, the complex nature of avant-garde poetry attracts an audience of interpreters and critics more readily than other forms of poetry do. He outlines five tasks for criticism: “line-by-line exegeses; general introductions to formal and intellectual tools; explanations of how poems interact with other parts of culture; refutations of common fallacies or bad arguments, and even jokes.” He defines poetry criticism as writing that helps people to read poems better, and to read poems to better enjoy life or, in the words of Samuel Johnson, the “better to endure it.”

*****In his opening statement, Michael Scharf establishes his position as a journalist ready to antagonize. He portrays journalism as an active player in a field that might bring more books of poetry to their interested audiences by providing the right incentives. The job of a journalist could be to condense and interpret the content of the latest titles for a broad “subculture of professional readers, content people, and other bookish types” and thus ready these new books for assumption into the media and integration into a broader culture of general readers. But publications with large circulation have dropped poetry reviews from their pages. And journals with small circulation have missed opportunities for reaching broader audiences because they cater strictly to academia. Combining a Marxist vocabulary with a salesman’s valor, Scharf discusses journalism that is market driven and arts that are commodities. He makes strong claims for poetry that is political, or poetry that can become a force in public life. He calls for a shorthand or formula that a reviewer can fall back on to present innovative books of poetry to the public.
*****Scharf claims that if journalism is a field that is market-driven, one can understand why vehicles like The New York Times have turned away from promoting literature. Because poetry doesn’t sell, generate ad pages, and attract investors, as the visual arts and fiction do, it does not have significant value as a commodity. As a consequence, publications with large audiences are not offering ample space for poetry reviews. Editors are “not assigning the kinds of pieces that would give writers the opportunity to think through, in front of a general audience, the cultural significance of different poetic practices,” and therefore attract readers.
*****Scharf blames the poetry journalism practiced in literary quarterlies for the lag in stimulated interest. Because they promote fixed ideas about what poetry is and have adhered to traditions defined by academia, they have not responded to market demands and have lost their once-competitive edge. He claims that if poetry were considered political and integral to society rather than an art that is removed from public interactions, its popularity would increase. He upholds the avant-garde poetry of today, and of the sixties and before, as an example of poetry that is marketable because it participates in the “creation and elaboration of our moment.” While he implies that much of the poetry of the self, by Lowell and others, was awful, at least readers were able to recognize what these lyric poems were about. Now that the self is no longer the subject, or if it is, it is still a private self that is being puzzled out, selling poetry is even more difficult than ever. He blames literary journals for supporting the new poetry in its vagueness and isolation, for introducing new titles slowly (a habit fostered by academia), and for prohibiting poetry from becoming a force in the public sphere. Once poetry is out in public, he states, it can be evaluated by critics, “not so that we can turn art into culture, but so that we might allow poetry an active role in imagining public life.” Here, Scharf may mean, as Shelley claimed in 1821, that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Yet the laws that interested Shelley were universal laws of love over particular workings of specific governments. Or, Scharf may be saying that poetry should have more effect on how its readers vote, direct government funding, and so on.
*****When asked about constraints on contemporary reviewing and contemporary poetry criticism, he replied that what is needed is a shorthand for talking about the work he wants to promote. He claims that once poetry is poised to be presented to the public, there is a business in place with a language all set up to talk about the work, which will dispel the confusion that usually surrounds poetry and prompt discussion about it and appreciation of it. He later claims that his biggest problem as editor at Publisher’s Weekly is the lack of a formula for talking about poetical work that is difficult.

*****Burt calls for a formal vocabulary to discuss poetry that is interesting and innovative; Scharf calls for a useful shorthand to promote the sale of poetry books. One cannot read these exchanges without feeling the friction of the old antagonism between intellectual and pragmatist. The tradition of the academy to promote understanding and evaluative discussion about what is best is secure through endowments and grants. But a good reader does not want to rely on the criticism of tenured professors who write criticism to dictate tastes. To read a poem by Jorie Graham is admittedly difficult, but I have always found something to savor in my direct attempts to follow her words on the page. To read criticism of Graham by Helen Vendler can be a delight, or a perplexing delight, yet I would hate to think that I had to rely on Vendler to approach the work of Graham at all. The reader must be free, and educated enough—and to me much of this dilemma is not a problem of marketability but of education—to read poetry alone and unaided at first encounter. And the reader must be willing to read a poem more than once and agree that a good poem survives multiple readings.
*****To call for a formula for presenting poetry to the public, as Scharf has, raises a thousand red flags. What greater calamity can exist than to present poetry superficially, according to a systematic code, for the sake of a convenient sale? Still, if the playwright and novelist (and journalist), Arnold Bennett (1867—1931) was correct when he wrote that “Journalists say a thing that they know isn’t true, in the hope that if they keep on saying it long enough it will be true,” Michael Scharf may have the staying power to keep his ideas in the forefront of the public mind. Few would argue with the statement that now, more than ever before, the arts must be marketed.
*****It is an observable truth that more and more writers and poets are becoming their own publicists. Recipients of masters of fine arts degrees who are fortunate enough to find a publisher for their manuscript will be well-served to develop their own marketing strategy, target their audiences, organize a reading schedule, and set up their own poetry workshop series. Each of these endeavors furthers methods for discussing and presenting poetry to a variety of audiences. The poets Diana Der-Hovanessian, Gail Mazur, and Barbara Helfgott Hyett have devised such careers in the Boston, Mass., literary scene over the past two decades. Their success stems from their energy, determination, and ability to work within small budgets.

*****Does poetry have a viable future as a commodity? Is the field of poetry market-driven? To the contrary, there was a time when authors wrote, as in the case of Saul Bellow, to make a bid for freedom. Poets embarking on literary careers today would do well to read the poem “Pegasus” by Patrick Kavanagh, who describes offering his horse, or soul, first to the church, then the state, then the local merchants. All abused it terribly. Not until he decided to stop using his horse to haggle with the world did it grow wings on his back and carry the poet to every land of his imagination.



Stephen Burt, graduate student at Yale and frequent reviewer and published poet, former
*****student of Vendler
Marjorie Perloff, critic, Sadie Dernham Patek Professor of Humanities at Stanford University.
Michael Scharf, graduate student at City University of New York and contributing editor to
*****Publisher’s Weekly, former student of Perloff
Helen Vendler, critic, A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University

***** Joyce Wilson is the editor and publisher of The Poetry Porch and a regular contributor to The Drunken Boat. She is a former student of Helen Vendler and a former managing editor of The Harvard Review. Her first collection of poetry, Spruce is forthcoming from Salmon Publishing Ltd. in Ireland.